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Obfuscating on thin ice

November 30, 2012 by · 19 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Sometimes it just falls into one’s lap. The other day I spoke to the Content Marketing Association. My speech on authentic communication was in need of an opening line when, the day before the event, I received a hamper from Fortnum & Mason including a card on which was written:

‘Many thanks for speaking at the International Content Marketing Summit. You helped make it a great success’

The CMA delegates – who seem like a thoroughly nice bunch of people – enjoyed the joke. So, it seems appropriate to have the bottle of claret from that hamper as a prize for one of my irregular Friday competitions.

I am looking for the best example of a phrase designed to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Although I don’t agree with everything in ‘Get Real’ I have found myself repeatedly quoting this line from Eliane Glaser’s feisty book:

‘we have sleepwalked into a world where nothing is as it seems; where reality, in fact, is the very opposite of appearance’.

Glaser is describing things like ‘green’ oil companies, mass produced ‘artisan’ products and ‘farmhouse’ branded goods imported from eastern European factories.

One aspect of the general problem of inauthenticity is phrases which are inherently misleading. An example, albeit somewhat clichéd, is the politician who says ‘I’m glad you asked me that question’ when their eyes are saying ‘how dare you pull that one on me’. Another phrase – this time in a sporting context – usually taken to mean its own opposite is ‘the Board/owner has expressed full confidence in x’. In fact, I’m sure I heard that recently said about QPR’s subsequently and swiftly sacked manager, Mark Hughes.

I have my own candidate for the most egregious and harmful example of double-speak, but had kept it under wraps until just having a very pleasant lunch with a friend who is a senior cooperate executive. She told me about research apparently showing that companies which included the phrase ‘shareholder value’ in their mission statement systematically perform worse than those which don’t.  The research thus confirms the central hypothesis of John Kay’s excellent book ‘Obliquity’.

This emboldens me to reveal my own bête noir (if no one beats it, I keep the wine). It is ‘a duty to shareholders’. This winds me up not only becuase I tend to dislike the kind of people who produce it as some kind of trump card, but also becuase of the ingenious way it generates mental links which disguise its real import.

On the one hand, the word ‘duty’ is resonant with Aristotalian virtues of responsibility, self-sacrifice and restraint. On the other hand, the idea of ‘shareholders’ evokes civic republican notions of collective stewardship, engagement and commitment.

Yet, as we know, the words themselves are generally code for, ‘our strategy is to make as much profit as we can as quickly as we can and damn the consequences’.

Dear readers, you have until midnight on Monday to come up with a better example.


Towards a 21st century enlightenment organisation

November 29, 2010 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

It is a few months now since we launched the new RSA strapline, 21st century enlightenment. Rather than throwing money at an expensive but superficial rebrand, the strategy has been to focus on  an expression of the Society’s underlying focus on human capability and gradually to add the strapline to the various RSA materials and outputs. At their last meeting, the Trustees agreed a visual refresh for the Society and this too will enable us to embed  in the brand.

So far, at least, I think we can be pleased with progress. Tomorrow I am delivering the annual Edward Boyle lecture at Leeds University. This will be the latest in a series of talks I have been invited to give on 21ce. This comes on top of the YouTube viewing figure for my lecture, which now stands at 305,000. Furthermore the Society gets regular letters and e-mails from a variety of people who think that it  is a powerful notion which chimes with their own work. As we had hoped, it has enough substance to feel substantive and distinct but is broad enough for people to interpret in many different ways, of which my annual lecture is only one.    

Over the festive season my thoughts start to turn to the next annual lecture (that is, assuming Fellows still want me around!).  I suggested a few weeks ago that one possible topic was the need for a different, more deliberative, form of democratic decision making.  But I now have another idea playing around: ‘towards a 21st century enlightenment organisation’.

Partly, this comes out of the experiences of trying to increase the RSA’s profile and impact, partly also the thinking I did before my NCVO lecture last month. It also relates to a challenge given me by Lord Nat Wei, David Cameron’s Big Society advisor to explore what might count as a Big Society organisation. 

It is a truism that if we are not just to cope with austerity but to advance as a society we need to get much better at tapping into human potential. But organisations – especially large ones – systematically waste human potential. This is not primarily due to ill will or bad leadership, but simply because the things that large organisations tend to require, such as bureaucracy, hierarchy, and a strict division of labour, all tend to squander human resources.

This is, of course, well known and a large library could be filled with books offering theories and stories designed to help organisational leaders get the best out of their managers, staff and clients.

Can the idea of 21ce offer its own way of thinking about this? It starts from two ideas: first that we need to foster an enhanced idea of citizenship (more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social), and, second, that in seeking to do so we should draw on the much more nuanced, and social, model of human nature which has emerged from science  and social science over the last 20 or 30 years.  The case made in my own lecture was that from these two ideas flow a third, namely that we should critically examine the way we think about the core enlightenment values of freedom, justice and progress. 

But what does freedom, justice and progress mean in an organisational context? Could answering such a question help organisations think afresh about how to reconcile the imperatives of organisational stability with unleashing the potential of people? Taking just the question of defining progress, most organisations tend to think of success simply in terms of expansion or – in the commercial sector – profit. But, on the one hand, size is not always, or perhaps even usually, the best way of measuring impact, while, on the other, John Kay has suggested in his book ‘Obliquity’ that profit may be one of those complex goals which we are less likely to achieve if we target it too directly and exclusively.   

I am acutely aware that if I was to talk about organisations it would take me into an area of research and practice which is deep and wide and in which I am a novice. I can usually rely on my readers to suggest good sources to help me start to climb the learning curve so, come on you organisational experts and consultants, what do you think I should read first?


Citizenship politics – part 2

February 22, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Social brain 

I am grateful for the constructive comments on my citizenship politics post, although I fear I’m a long way still from getting the idea more widely discussed. Today and tomorrow I want to explore the idea a bit more, including confronting its most obvious problems.

One issue to work through is whether citizenship politics is an approach to thinking or a set of beliefs. I have tended to present it as the former. Citizenship politics involves exploring together three sets of questions.

First, ‘who are we?’ kinds of questions. This is predominantly the domain of scientific and social scientific thinking. Neuroscience, social psychology, behavioural economics, evolutionary psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology all have insights to offer us about what drives human behaviour. There is talk of a new science of human behaviour which, by combining disciplines and calling on powerful new data sets, will fulfil the ambitions of the founding fathers of social science and enable us to predict human behaviour as easily as we can predict the behaviour of chemical compounds. I doubt this. The complexity and reflexivity of human behaviour mean it will never be entirely predictable. But citizenship politics does involve the attempt to base social analysis and policy prescription on a realistic, evidence-based, account of what makes us tick.                 

Second, ‘who do we need to be?’ kinds of questions. This is the domain of economic thinking (as long as we define ‘economic’ broadly). The question here is what kind of behaviour is necessary from us if we are to achieve the twin goals of increasing human welfare and managing finite resources. I wrote on Friday about how John Kay made a great impression on me by asking some fascinating questions about the relationship between GDP growth and human autonomy (more on this tomorrow).

Third, ‘who should we be?’ kinds of questions. This is the domain of philosophy and ethics: what is the good life well lived?

By asking ‘who do we need to be to create the future we want?’ citizenship politics attempts to bring these three sets of questions together, understanding both that they are conceptually distinct and that a rounded case for any policy strategy should have some way of answering each.      

I can think of at least three obvious ripostes to the case I have made so far. The first is that this is completely obvious; all I am doing is making explicit something which is implicit in all political arguments.

The converse criticism is that this is a counsel of perfection; we might aspire to a holistic, multi disciplinary way of thinking that moves debate to a higher level, but in the real world arguments and decisions have to be made on a more partial and tenuous basis.

Finally, it can be argued that arguing for a political case to meet certain analytical and explanatory criteria doesn’t qualify as ‘a politics’ at all. After all, on this basis, a rounded right wing argument might qualify while a limited left wing one wouldn’t and vice versa.

So tomorrow (if I can resist commenting on the Brown ‘bullying’ saga) I will describe what I see as the progressive stance in these three domains; who we are, who we need to be and who we should aspire to be.

I only hope that by then there is still someone out there reading.


Citizenship politics, citizenship economics

February 19, 2010 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

It boils down to this: policy and politics must start from the question of citizenship. This has been the core assertion running through my annual lectures, through this blog and through the strategy for the RSA. I am more and more convinced that this idea is the best basis for an intelligent, powerful, and urgently necessary debate about the choices society faces. But given that the demands of my job rule out finding the time and focus to write a book or even an extended pamphlet, how can I get this idea to the centre of current debate?

To recap – citizenship politics starts from the question ‘who do we need to be to create the kind of future we say we want’? When we look at this question we see a gap – what I have inelegantly called ‘the social aspiration gap’ – between our collective aspirations and our current trajectory.

This gap has three dimensions; three ways in which tomorrow’s citizens need, in aggregate, to be different to today’s. We need to be more engaged. It is only through mature engagement that we either give permission to our leaders to make right and responsible decisions for the long term and for the interests of all citizens, or that we accept that social progress rests, at least in part, on the decisions we make about our own lives.

We need to be more self reliant. We cannot help those who most need help, nor can we find fair and workable solutions to shared global and national challenges (such as climate change and international development) unless as many of us as possible, for as much of our lives as possible, meet our own needs as individuals and groups.

And we need to be pro-social, that is to say we need to behave in ways which strengthen the fabric of society and in particular the ties of reciprocity which underlie what David Halpern has recently called ‘the hidden wealth of nations’.

Importantly, citizenship politics has both a utilitarian and a normative rationale. The utilitarian case – made on grounds of economy, environment or mental well being – is that we simply cannot go on living like this. Debt (whether personal, corporate or public) is a powerful symbol of the unsustainable nature of contemporary lifestyles.

The normative case, which harkens back to the enlightenment origins of the RSA, is that to fulfil our potential as human begins we should be full members of society; which means we are engaged, self reliant and altruistic people.
The question for citizenship politics is this: ‘what decisions and what type of decision-making can best enable people to be the citizens they need to be to create the future to which we aspire?’

In answering this question there is plenty of scope for differences between left and right, concerning, for example, the role of the state and the importance of social equality. But both left and right should start, not from second order questions such as how can we maximise family income or economic growth, or even how can we achieve more equality, but with the first order question of future citizenship.

I have been inspired to return to these issues by hearing the economist and commentator John Kay speak at the Progressive Governance Conference in London this morning.

In a brilliant intervention he urged people to understand exactly what we should mean by economic growth. This, he said, is the process by which technological innovation and investment in physical and human capital create new choices for individuals and societies. But – and this is where the power of the argument lies – the route to more choices (for which we might more grandly say ‘freedom’ or ‘fulfilment’) lies not in ‘materialism’ – the producing and buying of more stuff – but in ‘lifestyle’. Quite apart from the way the crazed pursuit of more stuff has left us all indebted and our economy enfeebled, in aggregate as a society, what extra choices has most of the materialism of the last two decades really brought us? 

Instead, says Kay, if we want to think about how growth creates choice take the example of food. The quality of the food most people eat in this country has improved dramatically in the last two decades. But not because we are eating more (obesity is generally a disease of the poor not the middle class) but because we spend more on better quality food. Improvements in the way we cook, in our knowledge, and our skills (stretching from Jamie Oliver to our own culinary efforts), have expanded the market and given us new choices and pleasures without relying on us consuming more resources. Kay argues that we could develop a similar model of lifestyle-enhancing economic growth in almost all areas of the economy.

This seems to me to form the basis for adding citizenship economics to citizenship politics. That is to say, an economics which starts from the idea that growth is there to enable and enhance fuller citizenship not simply to consume more stuff. The question ‘what kind of economy are we trying to grow’ is inextricably linked to the question ‘what kinds of people do we want and need to be’.

And, of course, all these questions require us to have a sophisticated understanding of how human beings work – which is why the RSA spends so much time discussing what neuroscience, behavioural sciences and the study of evolution tell us about what makes us tick as human beings.

We need a new paradigm to replace the failed and contradictory combination of unfettered markets, social individualism, overbearing statism, political triangulation and technological determinism that have been the key features of the last two decades.

That model is to be found in citizenship politics and citizenship economics. 
What can I do to convince people?